ELLEN BURSTYN, Mystic Sufis and NOT the Ya Ya Sisterhood — My Weekend at her Home with the Mystical Lettuce Spinner

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The movie, The Ya Ya Sisterhood, made me remember my weekend stay at the home of actress, Ellen Burstyn, in the late 1970s. This experience also demonstrates how certain synchronistic events can lead to an interesting adventure.

At this stage in my life, I had become very interested in holistic health. I was working at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Buffalo, New York, and I was very discouraged and, often, upset with the way patients were treated. I had come to the conclusion that a holistic approach to health was more humane and afforded the patient more respect. Thus, I made the decision that I wanted to actually WORK in holistic health.

I did not know then that the Edgar Cayce foundation had a medical clinic (the one referred to in my previous diary entry called ‘The Edgar Cayce Reincarnation Group Karma Experience’). So, I began a search for someplace to be that would help me help others through holistic health.

I was in my Search for God (Edgar Cayce) study group which met weekly. There were only about 4 or 5 of us, however, it kept me connected with spiritual ideals which were of vital importance to me. We would meet in a different person’s home each week, read passages from the Search for God books that were derived from Edgar Cayce’s psychic readings. We’d then discuss their meaning, and find ways to apply the discussed ideals in our lives that week. I found it very fulfilling.

Thus, I was pretty tuned in at that time. I wasn’t married, didn’t have a child or major responsibilities, and had lots of free time after work to delve into spiritual matters. It was a good time.

My search for my place in holistic health began. One day I had picked up a magazine – I’m not even sure now which one, but probably something like “Whole Life.” I read some articles and then perused the ads. I’ve found ads to be very stimulating in generating ideas. (I never BUY the products, but I can get some great ideas from them!)

I ran across an ad for The World Symposium on Humanity to be held the summer of 1979, to be videotaped between London, Toronto, and Los Angeles. It mentioned the numerous famous people who would be speaking and they seemed to be of a New Age orientation. It didn’t specifically mention holistic health, however, it just had that “feel” to it. So, I wrote to the address in the ad, explaining that I was looking for a job in the holistic health field. And I waited.

About two weeks later, I received a call in Buffalo at about 1:00 a.m. – I was sound asleep. The call came from someone named Guru Raj Singh in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Guru Raj Singh said he read my letter and wondered if I was still interested in something in holistic health? “Yes, certainly,” I said. So, he said there might be an Administrative Assistant position with The World Symposium on Humanity. Because I was in Buffalo, he asked if I could go to New York City to meet him there for an interview? In fact, would I spend the entire weekend there, working with the Symposium coordinators – I could take notes, transcribe them, do whatever needed to be done of a clerical nature for them? I jumped at the chance. We agreed to meet the next weekend in Manhattan.

Fortunately, my friend, Paul Boroff, a pharmacist I knew from the University of Buffalo was now working at Sloan-Kettering (Cancer) Hospital in Manhattan. I called him and asked if I could spend a night there while I was waiting to meet this Guru Raj Singh. Paul is very conservative, and he agreed, but with trepidation.

I arrived in New York and went to Paul’s apartment. It was small, as are many New York apartments. He wanted to know just what I was doing there and who this Guru Raj Singh was. I explained about the World Symposium on Humanity and that Guru Raj Singh would meet me at Paul’s apartment the next morning.

The next morning came, and Guru Raj Singh appeared at the door. Paul opened it, and there was this man: in a totally white outfit, a white turban wrapped around his head, a dark beard and mustache, and a silver knife at his waist. I thought Paul would faint right on the spot! Paul turned to me, gave me a very pained and twisted look, and rapidly whispered: “Sharon, do you have ANY idea what you are getting yourself into??????!!!” Being (probably overly) trusting, I assured him it was okay, and followed Guru Raj Singh to a waiting cab.

I learned that Guru Raj Singh was a Sikh, someone who followed the teachings of Guru Ram Das. I asked him where we were going and he explained that the hostess of the World Symposium on Humanity was an actress living outside New York City. Her name was Ellen Burstyn.

Actually, I’m not very impressed by famous people only because one of my sisters was famous in gymnastics (she won 3rd place against the Russians in the 1977 World Games in Moscow), and I know that famous people aren’t any different (except they have more publicity, and some have more money). So, quite honestly, I didn’t even KNOW who Ellen Burstyn was.

The cab dropped us off at a huge stone home next to the Hudson River near Palisades, New York. Walking toward the door, it opened and there were two young men and a woman with greasy, reddish-blonde hair, about chin-length, with a long mu-mu, and bare feet. The woman introduced herself: “Hi, I’m Hadia, and we’re going to go to the store – make yourself at home.” Guru Raj Singh and I entered into the kitchen area, he took me to a small office, and I asked, “Where’s Ellen?” He quizzically looked at me, and said, “You just met her.” I said, “No I didn’t. I didn’t meet anyone named Ellen.” He kind of rolled his eyes and then said, “THAT was Ellen – Hadia is her SUFI name!” Hmmm, I guess I had a LOT more to learn!!

I discovered that this huge home was Ellen’s. However, she shared it with a couple of struggling actors who rented rooms there. On the wall hung photos of sufis dancing and spinning in mystic meditation. Being summer, it was lovely. There was a huge yard facing the river. A wooden, winding staircase led upstairs. I ended up having my own room, with a fireplace, adjoining Guru Raj Singh’s room. Then I went back to the office, where I was shown the desk and typewriter – in the room were posters of Ellen’s plays and shows she had been in, and a golden statue stood in there. In a way, I wish I had known about her beforehand, because I think all the things I was seeing would have had more meaning. But to me, she was just a kind hostess.

That weekend was a whirlwind of activity. I don’t even remember all the people who were there. Many names were a blur. I was pretty nervous and shy. There were lots of little focus groups meeting. I had a tape recorder and taped their conversations for later transcription (which ended up being nearly impossible).

We had a wonderful dinner one night. It was held in the glorious dining room. We had shrimp, salads, Vichyssoise (cold French potato soup) and other delicious foods. I remember Ellen helping in the kitchen, surrounded by mismatched silverware, cutting up vegetables when the phone rang. She sounded agitated at the phone call. She hung up exasperated and exclaimed “That Muhammad Ali, he wants to come over and I told him ‘No!’ – he just monopolizes conversations!” Well, that was interesting.

There were lots of pillows scattered in the living room, music, singing, and a dancer named Zuleikha. You know, I never got a lot done. It was actually a pretty disorganized group.

And what did I bring away from this weekend visit at Ellen Burstyn’s house? Was it like the Ya Ya Sisterhood?? No, it was the lettuce spinner. Huh? You may ask. What about the lettuce spinner? What can I say? There was something about it that just grabbed me. I came away from her home desperately wanting a lettuce spinner! Eventually, I DID get my very own lettuce spinner. It was very symbolic to me.

Now, you may ask, why wasn’t I focused on the rich and famous? A lettuce spinner?? Actually, though, I think it’s a fitting memory. You see, I think even the most mundane objects can elicit higher meanings – just like that simple ad resulted in this wonderful weekend. It’s a spiritual lettuce spinner. Remember Hadia and the Sufis? I think that lettuce spinner was a spiritual clue, a link to a higher realm, a symbolic thrust into a new world. After all, each time that lettuce spinner spins, I see the dancing mystical Sufis…..and Hadia……spinning, spinning, spinning……..

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